The 1962 abduction of Spain’s honorary vice-consul in Milan

On the night of 29-30 June 1962, three bombs went off in Barcelona: one near some Spanish Falange premises in the Plaza Fernando Lesseps: another at the Opus Dei-owned Colegio Mayor Monterols: and a third at the National Planning Institute. There were no casualties and the material damage was slight.

On 19 September 1962, three young libertarians were arrested and charged with the bombings: Jorge Conill Valls, a chemistry student at Barcelona University: and two workers, Marcelino Jimenez Cubas and Antonio Mur Peiron.

On 22 September all three stood trial before a court martial (Summary Case 71-iv-62) and received the following sentences: Jorge Conill Valls, 30 years’ imprisonment: Marcelino Jimenez, 25 years and Antonio Mur 18 years. The Captain-General of Catalonia refused to endorse these sentences: in his view, the accused deserved the death penalty, and he repudiated the Court Martial’s findings, meaning that a retrial would ensue. The likelihood was that, in the light of precedent, all three militants of the FIJL (Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth) would face the death penalty and that execution would follow quickly.

In an attempt to save the lives of Jorge Conill Valls and his two confederates, the Gruppo Giovanile Libertario (Libertarian Youth Group) in Milan planned to kidnap Spain’s honorary consul-general in Milan, the Conde de Altea.

The group comprised Amedeo Bertolo, a 21 year old student who had met and struck up a friendship with the three accused in the course of a trip to Spain in 1962 to bring in anti-Franco propaganda materials; Luigi Gerli, 22; Gianfranco Pedron, 21; and Aimone Fornaciari, 22. This anarchist group had the assistance of four socialists of “the revolutionary left”, as they described themselves at the time. (This was pretty much what was later described as the “extra-parliamentary opposition”.) They were Antonio Tomiolo, Vittorio De Tassis, Giorgio Bertani and GianBattista Novello-Paglianti.

Amedeo Bertolo later explained that this ideologically motley collection came about because four people were not enough to pull the operation off successfully and they could not secure help from other young libertarians: then again, and this was the most important factor, they needed a driver and none of the original four could drive.

By the time they were ready to act they discovered that the consul, the Conde de Altea, was away on holiday in Spain: as it was a matter of urgency that some move be made soon on behalf of their Spanish comrades, they refused to alter the original plan and just made do with using the honorary vice-consul, Isu Elias, a 55 year-old of Polish extraction, as their hostage. In the absence of the consul proper, the latter was his temporary deputy.

Alberto Tomiolo paid out 31,000 lire in Verona on the hiring of a white Giulietta: all they did was replace its original licence plate, VR 71538, with a different set. The original plate was to be refitted before the hire car was returned.

They decided to carry out the kidnapping on Thursday 27 September 1962 but, due to unforeseen circumstances, the car arrived at the scene a half hour late and by the time it reached No 6, Via Ariberti, the consulate was closed. At which point they had a brainwave: that evening they a call to Isu Elias, supposedly on behalf of the deputy mayor of Milan, the Christian Democrat Luigi Meda, to tell him that Meda wished to speak with him and to that end was inviting him to a working lunch the next morning at the La Giarrettiera restaurant: to make it easier for him to keep the appointment he would sending a car to pick him up.

On Friday 28 September 1962, at 12.15 pm Luigi Meda’s supposed “secretary” (Vittorio De Tassis) showed up and together they walked to the car parked in the Via Ariberti, where Antonio Tomiolo (in chauffeur’s uniform) was waiting for them with the engine running; Isu Elias sat in the back whilst De Tassis sat in the front beside the driver. At which point Gianfranco Pedron and Amedeo Bertolo joined them, sitting either side of the vice-consul and warning him at gunpoint not to offer any resistance.

Isu Elias, who was called as a witness at the trial of his abductors, stated that the car took off at some speed, that it was being driven crazily and that they came within a whisker of a collision with a tram, that the driver took the wrong turn several times over and drove through traffic lights..

Once on the road out of Milan, they made Isu Elias wear sunglasses, covered in bandages, with gauze and cotton on the inside so that he could not see a thing.

Gianfranco Pedron had, some time previously, rented a ramshackle and deserted farmhouse, more like a stable, near Cugliate Fabiasco, a village of 178 souls some 50 kms north of Milan and just 5 kms from the Swiss border. Pedron and his friends used to spend weekends there. They made for the farmhouse by a roundabout route to confuse their captive. The vice-consul was terror-stricken and his companions did all they could on the trip to set him mind at ease: they explained that their intention was to hold him hostage in an attempt to save three comrades from execution who had been arrested in Spain and were in danger of being executed: that they would not be harming him in any way.

They left the vice-consul at the farmhouse in Cugliate Fabiasco under guard by Vittorio De Tassis.

On the Saturday morning they tipped off the (pro-Communist) Milan evening paper Stasera that they had kidnapped Spain’s honorary vice-consul in Milan and explained their motives. Amedeo Bertolo immediately travelled to Paris in order to issue from there a series of communiqués to the press, stipulating that the kidnapped vice-consul would be used as a hostage in securing the release in Spain of Jorge Conill Valls and his comrades who had been arrested for political offences.

The kidnapping caused something of a sensation in the Spanish as well as the European and American press.

It had been anticipated that the vice-consul would be handed over to a team of Spanish young libertarians for release in Geneva at the premises of the Human Rights League there, and that the opportunity would be seized to issue a statement of condemnation of Franco’s regime, generating ever more publicity and thus investing the operation with even more impact.

On the evening of Monday 1 October the vice-consul’s wife received through the mail a few lines in the kidnap victim’s own handwriting. The express letter was franked at Orly airport in Paris and bore the time of 2.30 pm 29 September. The letter stated:

Dearest Diddy, I am well and I beg you not to upset yourself. Love to Mum and Muccia and all the others. All my love to you, your Isu.

Those lines were accompanied by a letter from the kidnappers, written in block capitals:

We have kidnapped the Spanish vice-consul in Milan in an effort to halt the execution of three young antifascists tried in Barcelona. Doctor Elias is in no danger. We guarantee that he will be freed when, thanks to the news of his abduction, we have brought the dismal fate of our three comrades in Barcelona to the world’s attention. Long live Free Spain!

An identical letter was sent to the Milan evening paper Stasera.

The idea of releasing the vice-consul in Geneva had to be dropped quickly because inconceivable dangers arose. Alfredo Tomiolo, who had acted as driver in the abduction and whose task was to stay quietly at home and nothing more, panicked and told a lawyer about his nervousness. The latter advised him to contact leftwing reporters (Communists, more or less) since it was extremely dangerous to leave the denouement of the episode in the hands of anarchists exclusively. Tomiolo contacted some reporters from Stasera but the word soon spread through their colleagues and even the police got wind of details that placed the whole operation in jeopardy.

Once the young libertarians learned what was going behind their backs they decided to release the vice-consul forthwith.

On the evening of 1 October, Alonso Gama, first secretary with Spain’s Rome Embassy, who had been designated to take over temporarily from Isu Elias, called a press conference at the consulate in the Via Ariberti.

Reporters thought that they were about to hear some interesting official statement about the abduction, but went along readily enough. Alonso Gama made it plain straight off that “in order to avert any misunderstanding”, he was handling the press releases, but “only in respect of matters relative to the consulate”. When a reporter asked: “And regarding the thing that has held the public’s interest for the past three days and forced the police into frantic activity and demanding emergency action?”, Alonso Gama replied: “I’ve just come up from Rome and know absolutely nothing about all that. In any event, this kidnapping cannot have any effect: even if every diplomat were kidnapped it would not have the slightest effect on the conduct of the Spanish government.”

The dialogue continued for a few minutes before the diplomat “who had a lot of things to do” took his hurried leave to the reporters.

In the company of Nozzoli, a reporter from Il Giorno and after warning Vittorio, Amedeo Bertolo headed for Cugliate Fabiasco in the early hours of 2 October to hand the vice-consul over to him. But when the two men reached the farmhouse, it was to find that the bird had flown a short time before: the cage was empty. Nino Puleiro, a reporter with the weekly ABC, had had wind of it in an anonymous telephone call and had arrived at around 1.30 am.

Vittorio De Tassis had thought him the reporter from Il Giorno, surrendered his prisoner and vanished. Nino Puleiro escorted the vice-consul to the ABC editorial offices. At 2.30 am the magazine’s editor in chief, Gaetano Baldacci, handed the freed captive over to the head of the Flying Squad, who had come in answer to his call.

Bertolo immediately returned to Milan to warn his friends that they were all in imminent danger and to look to their safety.

So imminent was the danger that the police arrived at the farmhouse three hours after the vice-consul had been released and if they were not the first to show up, that was only because they had got lost in the nearby woods.

And so Isu Elias, Spain’s honorary vice-consul in Milan, had been held captive for just four days in all.

The day before (1 October) the young libertarians had issued a statement to the ANSA agency: it stated:

FIJL (International Libertarian Youth Federation) COMMUNIQUÉ

The young people of the free world cannot ignore the crimes committed by the Franco government against the liberty and lives of wretched Spaniards. The kidnapping was organised in order to focus the attention of world opinion upon the sorry plight of the three young libertarians sentenced in Barcelona. We want to inspire on the part of the world’s decent democrats a feeling of moral and material fellowship with the Spanish people. We have returned the vice-consul as promised to show that ours are not the methods employed by Franco and his Falangist police.

Milan, 1 October.”

Within a day of the release of Isu Elias, Gianfranco Pedron had been picked up in Cerro Maggiore near Milan. The son of a craftsman, he was studying agriculture at Milan University: he was a member of the Internationalist Libertarian Youth. Some remarks made by the landlady of the rented farmhouse put the police on the trail. It was not long before all the others were arrested too: Alberto Tomiolo, Luigi Gerli, Vittorio De Tassis, the son of the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in Trento, and the reporters Aldo Nobile and Giampiero Dell’Aqua, as well as Nino Vaccari (all three from the newspaper Stasera). The only one to give police the slip was Amedeo Bertolo who had fled first to Genoa, then to near Novara and finally to Paris.

The car used in the kidnapping was found in a garage in Verona.

At dawn on 4 October a raging blaze destroyed the farmhouse where the vice-consul had been held: nothing was left except the outer walls. An investigation found that the fire had been accidental, probably due to some cigarette butt dropped by one of the many people to have tramped through the place and fed by the straw stored there and by the wooden frame of the building.

Jorge Conill, Marcelino Jimenez and Antonio Mur were tried in Madrid a second time on 5 October 1962, before the Supreme Court Martial. The prosecuting counsel, Colonel Rafael Diaz Llanos, asked for the death penalty for Conill, with life imprisonment for the others, but the Court confirmed the sentences pronounced on 22 September. However, the American Associated Press agency mistakenly reported that Jorge Conill had been sentenced to death.

This mistaken news was picked up by all the media and it was amid a general belief that Jorge Conill was facing death that a noisy anti-Franco demonstration proceeded in Milan the next day: it massed outside the Spanish Consulate-General in the Via Ariberti, a few hundred metres from the Piazza del Duomo: the demonstrators carried placards displaying angry anti-Franco slogans.

On 8 October Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, the archbichop of Milan (who took over from John XXIII at the Vatican as Paul VI on 21 June 1963) sent General Franco a message urging clemency for Jorge Conill, Marcelino Jimenez and Antonio Mur. It read:

“On behalf of the Catholic students of Milan and on my own behalf, I beseech your excellency to show clemency to the condemned students and workers, so that human life may be spared and that it may be plain that public order in a Catholic country can be defended differently from in countries without Christian faith and customs.”

On Tuesday 13 November 1962, the trial of those implicated in the kidnapping of the Spanish vice-consul in Milan, Isu Elias, opened in Varese (Lombardy).

Amedeo Bertolo had stated in Paris that he would show up voluntarily at the trial to shoulder his part of the blame with his colleagues. Although the Courthouse was closely guarded by Carabinieri, the fugitive did manage to make it through to the courtroom, posing as a barrister’s assistant. There was a major sensation when he disclosed his identity in court.

As expected, the trial was turned into a monumental protest meeting and anti-Franco propaganda opportunity, as had been the case with the earlier Genoa trial on 13 November 1950 when the Italians Gaspare Mancuso, Gaetano Busico and Eugenio de Lucchi had faced charges in connection with the attack on the Spanish Consulate in Genoa on 8 November 1949.

21 November saw the last hearing against the direct perpetrators of the kidnapping and seven other accomplices who had acted as go-betweens and given assistance.

The jury was out for two hours and ten minutes. The sentences handed down were as follows: for De Tassis, Bertolo, Pedron, Gerli and Tomiolo, 7 months in prison: for Fornaciari, 4 months and one in custody. De Tassis had a month added for possession of arms, and Bertolo, Pedron and Tomiolo got another 20 days: Bertano and Novelli-Paglianti were sentenced to 5 months, with a further month for Bertoni carrying arms. The other sentences were these: Sartori, 5 months: the reporters Nobile and Dell’Aqua, 4 months, and Vincenzo Vaccari was found not guilty.

On the other hand, the Court did order that the sentences be suspended in every case, that the convicted men not be recorded as having criminal records and that all of those picked up be released forthwith.

For the second time, a “political” trial in Italy recognised the extenuating circumstance of the offenders’ having acted on noble moral and social considerations.

Amedeo Bertolo declared after the trial:

“I was in jail only for the duration of the trial. It was worth the sentences we got because we saved the life of a comrade – although he subsequently stated that he was saved by the Pope – and we showed that, for all our shortcomings, a little enthusiasm can achieve significant results, without any need for the great resources now deployed.”

As for the resources available to them in the kidnapping, Amedeo Bertolo recalled that they spent 80,000 lire on the entire operation, most of it on the hire of the car. ”We were so hard-up”, he observed, “that for the duration of the abduction we had to take up food collections from our friends so that the hostage and his guard might eat.”

Jorge Conill was quite ungrateful towards the comrades who had gone to such lengths to secure his survival. In prison he defected to the Communists and upon his release he was appointed political secretary of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC). When Pope Paul VI (the former Cardinal Montini) died Conill made statements that bore no relationship to the facts, claiming actions in which he had no hand and of which he had even no knowledge, and he argued that it had been the Pope who had saved his life. As we have said before, the Pope’s message calling for clemency was issued on 8 October – he had previously refused to intercede – and the Supreme Court Martial had rejected the prosecution’s call for a death sentence and confirmed the sentence of life imprisonment on 5 October, which is to say, three days before the Pope’s intervention.

From: Polémica No 60, Winter 1996. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.